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The cloak, mantle and authority of the Prophet

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — the symbolic importance of Mullah Omar with the cloak of the Prophet, comparative, frankly long, and IMO worth it ]

Mullah Omar in Kandahar; Elijah & Elisha from the Nuremberg Chronicle

I would like to give you a sense of the significance of an apparently insignificant detail, which I was reminded of today while skimming Charles Kurzman‘s The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, page 74:

To gain legitimacy as he was taking over Afghanistan,Taliban leader Mulla Muhammad Umar literally wrapped himself in the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, a cherished relic stored for two centuries at a shrine in Qandahar. He ordered the custodians to unlock the sanctuary, then stood on the roof of a nearby mosque and placed his hands in the cloth as a crowd of supporters chanted “Commander of the Faithful,” a title associated with the first caliphs to succeed the Prophet Muhammad.

To better grasp the significance of the situation, I will first quote from the Jewish and Buddhist scriptures to illuminate the symbolic power that can be vested — interesting word — in a cloak or robe.


John Daido Loori is a zen master in whose teishos or teachings I often find insight and delight. Here’s his description of the original transmission of “bowl and robe” in Buddhism, from the Buddha to his disciple Mahakashyapa:

After Buddha died, Ananda became the attendant of Mahakashyapa. One day he asked, “That time on Mount Gudhakutra, when the World-Honored One gave you the bowl and robe, and transmitted the Dharma to you, what else did he give you?” Mahakashyapa called out, “Ananda.” Ananda responded, “Yes, Master?” Mahakashyapa said, “Take down the flagpole.” At that point, Ananda finally had a realization. He realized what Mahakashyapa had realized. So it has been, down through successive generations, mind-to-mind for 2,500 years.

The Buddha’s teaching later passes from India into China, where the transmission continues. Here’s how Hui Neng, in the Platform Sutra, describes his own enlightenment and reception of the teachings:

At midnight the Fifth Patriarch called me into the hall and expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. Hearing it but once, I was immediately awakened, and that night I received the Dharma. None of the others knew anything about it. Then he transmitted to me the Dharma of Sudden Enlightenment and the robe, saying: ‘I make you the Sixth Patriarch. The robe is the proof and is to be handed down from generation to generation. My Dharma must be transmitted from mind to mind. You must make people awaken to themselves.’


There’s a remarkable story told in 2 Kings 2.8-15 that concerns the transmission of prophetic gifts by similar means, when the prophet Elijah is carried up into heaven:

And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground. And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan; And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over. And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.

The beauty, the power in this telling comes from the cloak’s ability to part the waters, as on an earlier occasion Moses‘ staff had done, not merely in the hands on Elijah, but also, once the transmission has been made, in the hands of Elisha. It is that double motif of the parting of the waters that demonstrates the efficacy of the prophetic transmission.

Coming fresh from the Buddha, Mahakashyapa, Hui Neng, Elijah and Elisha, we should be ready to appreciate that the mantle, cloak or robe of a sacred person is imbued with that person’s power — Matthew 14.36 describes crowds bringing the sick to Jesus:

that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.


In light of these examples, let us consider the reports of the day when Mullah Omar was proclaimed Amir of the Faithful:

There was a tremendous stir in Kandahar: we followed the crowds to a mosque in the city center. The Taliban had been holding an assembly of mullahs from all over Afghanistan. Now the results were about to be made public. Holy war was announced against the government of President Rabbani in Kabul. The head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was declared to be the Amir or leader of all Muslims everywhere. Because this was regarded as a key moment for the Afghan nation, Mullah Omar displayed the holy cloak of the Prophet Muhammad to the crowd. It’s kept in Kandahar and shown only in times of crisis. The last time was sixty years ago. Neither the cloak nor the ceremony has ever been filmed before, not has Mullah Omar. People in the crowd threw up their turbans to touch the cloak and be blessed by it. It was like being at some great religious ceremony in the Middle Ages.

That’s from the soundtrack of a video I sadly can’t post here, but which you can see for yourself on a BBC site under the title Mullah Omar reveals the Prophet’s cloak.

Adam Curtis, who posted the clip, describes it thus:

In the early 90s the students returned to Afghanistan and set up the Taliban – to cleanse the country of a revolution that had gone wrong, compromised by the futile idea of modernising Islam. And in April 1996 Mullah Omar went to the Shrine of the Holy Cloak. He took out the cloak for the first time in 60 years and waved it from the roof – just as Amanullah had in 1929 – and announced a jihad against the Islamist factions in Kabul.

The BBC producer Tom Giles and John Simpson were in Kandahar that day – and they captured this extraordinary moment on video.

When King Amanullah had held the cloak above his head in 1929 it symbolised the end of his dreams of creating a modern world in Afghanistan. Now – in 1996 – Omar was saying the same thing – forget the future, listen to the ghosts of your past – and follow their rules.

Let’s note in passing that Omar holds the cloak up — neither in the video clip nor in the two accounts is it suggested that he wore it — and that it had previously been held up by Amanullah Shah in 1929.


For the symbolic impact as reported in the West, let’s turn to Tim Weiner‘s piece, Seizing the Prophet’s Mantle: Muhammad Omar, in the NYT of December 7, 2001:

And as the country was falling to the Taliban five and a half years ago, Mullah Omar literally cloaked himself in the trappings of the Prophet Muhammad.

On April 4, 1996, as the Taliban neared total control, he was moved by zeal to unseal a shrine in Kandahar that held a cloak believed to have belonged to the prophet, the founder of Islam. The cloak had not been touched since some time in the 1930’s. He lifted it in the air as he stood on a rooftop, displaying it to a crowd of followers. The event was caught on videotape, one of the very few times that he was ever photographed. He placed the cloak, which only the Prophet was said to have worn, upon his own shoulders.

And at that moment, he declared himself the commander of the faithful, the leader of all Islam. No one had claimed that title since the Fourth Caliph, more than 1,000 years ago.

That’s impressive stuff, and “Seizing the Prophet’s Mantle” and “Omar literally cloaked himself in the trappings of the Prophet” do a decent job of capturing the marriage of literal and symbolic that’s at work here.

But “he placed the cloak … upon his own shoulders”? I’m not so sure.


It was a tremulous moment, evidently, even for Omar, as Norimitsu Onishi reported in the NYT a couple of weeks later on December 19, 2001, in A Tale of the Mullah and Muhammad’s Amazing Cloak:

The first time Mullah Muhammad Omar was allowed to enter the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad here in Kandahar, and cast his gaze on the sacred ancient robe, he trembled. So disoriented was Mullah Omar that as he prepared to pray, he mistook the way toward Mecca.

“He turned to face toward the south,” recalled Qari Shawali, 48, the keeper of the prophet’s cloak. “So I made him change his position to turn toward Mecca.”

I suspect that here we have an indication that Omar was surprised by the event, that he was in fact acclaimed by the assembly of mullahs rather than claiming the robe and title for himself.

However, as the saying goes: Allah is the best of knowers.


Mujib Mashal‘s piece, The myth of Mullah Omar on al-Jazeera, 6 June 2012, gives us a few clues as to informed Afghan responses to the event, throwing in the detail that bin Laden was there at the time -– but also informing us that Omar “donned the cloak” and claiming this was the first time in 250 years that this had happened:

To formally announce his leadership in 1996, Mullah Omar, then 36 years old, brought forth the purported cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, one of Afghanistan’s most cherished Islamic relics. For the first time since the reign of Ahmad Shah Abdali more than 250 years before, Omar donned the cloak in the presence of about 1,500 religious leaders, including the late Osama bin Laden.

“Wearing the cloak was a masterstroke,” Sharifi said, adding that it linked the ex-guerrilla fighter to both Abdali and the Prophet. But Wahid Muzhda, an Afghan analyst and one-time high-ranking official in the Taliban foreign ministry, disputes that narrative. “From what I know, from sources close to Omar, and from a chat with the keeper of the shrine [where the cloak is kept], Omar did not wear the cloak.” “With great respect, he held the cloak in front of the religious leaders gathered for allegiance.”

This gesture, more than any other, was the impetus that allowed Mullah Omar, without any deep political or tribal base, to become the iron-fisted ruler of about 90 per cent of Afghanistan until the US invasion in 2001.


I know, you’re fatigued and I’m excited: bear with me, let’s hear the story of Ahmad Shah as told by Steve Inskeep on NPR in The Cloak of the Prophet some time in 2002:

According to the version of the legend that I heard, Ahmad Shah traveled to Bokhara — once one of the major centers of Islamic scholarship and culture, now a modern city in the former Soviet state of Uzbekistan . There he saw the sacred Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, and decided to bring it home. He wanted Kandahar to have the artifact, so he asked to “borrow” the cloak from its keepers.

The keepers knew he might steal it, and told him he must not take the cloak from Bokhara. So Ahmad Shah pointed to a stone in the ground and made a promise. He said, “I will never take the cloak far away from this stone.”

Relieved, the keepers let him take the cloak. Ahmed Shah kept his word, in a sense. He had the stone taken up out of the ground, and had it carried back to Kandahar, along with the cloak, which he never returned. Today, the stone stands on a pedestal near the shrine.

The Cloak of the Prophet is normally hidden from public view. It is taken out only for special occasions. The last such occasion came in 1996, as the Taliban seized control of the country.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, made what was considered a brilliant propaganda move. He took Mohammed’s shroud out of storage and wore it in a public rally, as a way to identify himself with the Prophet, and give himself legitimacy.

That’s an interesting tale in its own right, and reminds me of another Abrahamic treasure, the Stone of Scone, throned above which Scottish and British Kings and Queens are crowned. For your viewing delight: Stone of Destiny.


Fast forward to July 1928, a more recent moment when Afghanistan was in crisis.
Adam Curtis reports in The Weird World of Waziristan, 5 April 2010:

Amanullah fled to Kandahar. He knew that his attempt at modernization had failed and to save himself he tried to prove that in reality he was a traditional Islamic monarch. He did it in a final dramatic gesture.

Amanullah went to the Shrine of the Holy Cloak in the centre of Kandahar. He opened up the brass bound chest where the cloak which was reputed to have been the Prophet’s had lain for over a 100 years. Amanullah lifted it above his head and demanded of the mullahs in front of him whether Allah would allow a heretic or an apostate to perform such a sacred act.


And so to our most serious analytic effort on the topic, and a couple of indicators of the point I’m so often trying to make, here and in other posts on ZP. Here are Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, writing in Terrorism, Insurgency, and Afghanistan as published by the Naval Postgraduate School, where both of them work in the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies:

Omar joined this rogues gallery of politicized insurgent Mullahs by means of a politico-religious stunt that is of enormous importance to the Taliban movement but that is considered insignificant by most Western analysts, if they are aware of it at all. In doing so, he became the epitome of the charismatic leader as described by Max Weber, who he defined as having:

… a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

The event in question was Omar’s removal in 1994 of a sacred garment -— believed by many Afghans to be the original cloak worn by the Prophet Mohammed -– from its sanctuary in Kandahar, and actually wearing it while standing atop a mosque in the city. Whereas Omar had been a nonentity before this piece of religious theatre, the audacious stunt catapulted him to a level of mystical power (at least among the 90 percent of Pahstuns who are illiterate) in a manner that is almost impossible for Westerners to understand, and it resulted in his being proclaimed locally the Amir-ul Momineen, the Leader of the Faithful — not just of the Afghans but of all Muslims.

I would draw your particular attention to this phrase:

a politico-religious stunt that is of enormous importance to the Taliban movement but that is considered insignificant by most Western analysts, if they are aware of it at all.

Why? Why do we continually overlook such indications of the depth of feeling that animates the Taliban? Perhaps another analogy, from closer to home, will help us here.

I’m not sure that I’d call the exposition of the Shroud of Turin a “piece of religious theatre” or an “audacious stunt” — even if Pope Benedict, famously concerned at the secularization of Europe, visited it and remarked both on the Shroud as an icon of the death and burial of Christ, and of our era’s participation in the “death of God” “after the two World Wars, the lagers and the gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki”:

Jesus remained in the tomb until dawn of the day after the Sabbath and the Turin Shroud presents to us an image of how his body lay in the tomb during that period which was chronologically brief (about a day and a half), but immense, infinite in its value and in its significance.

You may regard the Son of God and the Prophet of Allah as similar figures or utterly different: but to understand the emotions roused by Mullah Omar’s gesture, these correspondences drawn from other religious traditions may provide a useful place to start.


As for myself, I have a poet’s reverence for symbols, but I recognize that it is what they symbolize that is important — and so I’ll close as I began, with the Buddhist robe and bowl and another delighful teisho from Abbot Loori:

Ming was chasing after Hui-neng, determined to retrieve the bowl and robe of Bodhidharma from him. Finally, when he caught up to Hui-neng, the Sixth Ancestor put down the robe and bowl and said, “This robe was given to me on faith. How can it be fought for by force? I leave it for you to take it.” Ming tried to pick up the robe and bowl but couldn’t—they were as heavy as a mountain. He fell to his knees, trembling, and said, “I come for the teachings, not the robe. Please teach me, oh lay brother.” Completely open, completely receptive, completely ready, he was a man teetering on the brink of realization. Immediately, the Sixth Ancestor struck. “Think neither good nor evil,” he said. “At that very moment, what is the true self of monastic Ming?”

Luttwak on the Australian Strategic Pivot

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Iconoclastic strategist Edward Luttwak has characteristically caustic words on an Australian -American strategic entente to contain an “autistic” rising China:

Australia counters Chinese threat 

AUSTRALIA has been quietly building a regional defence coalition to restrain China’s increasingly ”aggressive” and ”autistic” international behaviour, an influential adviser to the Pentagon says.

Edward Luttwak bluntly contradicts Australian and US denials that they see China as a threat or want to contain its rise. ”Australians view themselves as facing a strategic threat,” he writes in his coming book, The Rise of China v The Logic of Strategy.

The emerging latticework of regional defence arrangements augments ”the overall capacity of the US-Australian alliance to contain China”.

The book praises Australia’s strategic initiative in forging ties with countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and India that lie beyond America’s natural security orbit, as well as broadening the defence networks of close US allies such as Japan.

”Each of these Australian initiatives derives from a prior and broader decision to take the initiative in building a structure of collective security piece by piece, and not just leave it all to the Americans,” it says.

….The Australian National University’s Hugh White has argued that the US needs to ”share power” with what is going to be ”the most formidable power the US has ever faced”. But for Mr Luttwak, the ”logic of strategy” dictates that neighbours will naturally coalesce against the new rising threat, thus preventing China from realising anything like the relative military power that has been projected.

”The rapid accession to prosperity has been a very common way for countries to lose their sanity,” Mr Luttwak told the Herald. He said China suffered from ancient and new foreign policy weaknesses.

”The Chinese are autistic in dealing with foreigners, they have no sense of the ‘other’,” he said. ”They think they are incredibly brilliant strategists as if they had been conquering other nations, when in fact it’s been the other way around for 1500 years.”


China’s political system is in the midst of a particularly edgy and uncertain generational transition of power, following the succession machinery designed by China’s last “paramount leader”, Deng Xiaoping, to retain harmony among the ruling Communist Party elite.  Deng’s successors are following his script, but their hearts no longer appear to be in it – 15 years after Deng’s death, cracks have appeared in the facade of unity. Not a fatal flaw, but lacking a leader of Deng’s stature who, even in retirement, remained the supreme arbiter of China’s political system, factions of China’s elite have more room to push conflicting agendas.

In foreign policy we see the effects in China’s erratically belligerent, then conciliatory behavior towards it’s East Asian neighbors and the United States. Strategically, it makes little sense for China to repeatedly generate friction over territorial claims to the entire South China Sea with Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States and push a separate dispute with Japan simultaneously, yet because of intra-elite, domestic politics, Beijing is unable or unwilling to restrain enthusiast Chinese officials from doing so.

Pussy Riot IX, Of films, riots and hatred IV: Notre Dame 1950

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — more food for thought on religious and irreligious outrage — and Paris again, too ]

Michel Mourre (in friar's habit) and Serge Berna reviewing "The Declaration of Mourre"


It will not have escaped the eagle-eyed readers of Zenpundit that three of the incidents we have been discussing recently — the Pussy Riot affair, the Innocence of Muslims video and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons — all revolve around issues of blasphemy and free speech.

I’m indebted to whoever it was pointed me to Colin Jager‘s Pussy Riot’s punk prayer, posted on the SSSR’s Imanent Frame blog ten days ago as a comment on the punk grrls incident:

Perhaps its most obvious precursor is the intervention staged by several young lettrist poets at Notre Dame Cathedral, on Easter Sunday, 1950. In the middle of the service Michel Mourre, dressed as a Dominican monk, climbed into a pulpit and began to read a sermon/poem that condemned the Catholic Church for “infecting the world with its funeral morality,” and announced that God was dead “so that Man may live at last.” As Greil Marcus details in Lipstick Traces, the response was dramatic: the Cathedral’s guards attacked the four with their swords, and the crowd chased them out of the Cathedral and down to the Seine, where they were apprehended by the police.


That’s the sort of hint I like to follow up on, so I found my way to Greil Marcus‘ book, and to this paragraph for starters:

At 11:10 A.M. on 9 April 1950, four young men — one got up from head to foot as a Dominican monk — entered Notre-Dame in Paris. Easter high mass was in progress; there were ten thousand people from all over the world in the cathedral. “The false dominican,” as the press called him — Michel Mourre, twenty-two — took advantage of a pause after the credo and mounted the altar. He began to read a sermon written by one of his co-conspirators, Serge Berna, twenty-five.

Let me say right away that there is at least one pointer here suggesting that Marcus may not be the best observer of religious detail. Marcus says Mourre “took advantage of a pause after the credo and mounted the altar” before reading his sermon — Mourre’s own account has him “mounting the pulpit”. Curiously enough, the writer of the Immanent Frame piece makes a similar error in describing Pussy Riot:

Singing “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out!,” and clad in brightly colored dresses, leggings, and balaclavas, the women danced, kneeled, and crossed themselves in front of the Cathedral’s high altar.

Only in a stretched sense can the Pussy Rioters be described as performing their act “in front of the Cathedral’s high altar.” They were in front of the great doors of the ikonostasis, which when opened, lead to the altar. But the ikonostasis itself is no more an altar than a pulpit is.

Sacred architecture, gentle readers: these are differences here that do make a difference.


Marcus then gives the text of the sermon, which can be found on Wikipedia and concludes with the line:

We proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that Man may live at last.

Compare the Pussy Riot prayer, the Guardian’s translation of which can be found here, and which includes the lines:

Fight for rights, forget the rite – Join our protest, Holy Virgin.


Moving along, Greil next allows us to glimpse the response, which included the drawing of swords and the threat of lynching:

The cataclysm that followed went beyond anything expected by Mourre and his fellows, who first planned merely to let loose a few red balloons. The organist, warned that a disruption might take place, drowned out Mourre just after he pronounced the magic words “God is dead.” The rest of the speech was never delivered: swords drawn, the cathedral’s Swiss Guards rushed the conspirators and attempted to kill them. Mourre’s comrades took to the altar to shield him — one, Jean Rullier, twenty-five, had his face slashed open. The blasphemers escaped — his habit streaked with Rullier’s blood, Mourre gaily blessed the worshippers as he made for the exit — and were captured, rather rescued, by the police: having chased the four to the Seine, the crowd was on the verge of lynching them.

You may recall for comparison with this incident that the sum total of weaponry attributed to Christ’s disciples in the Gospels was two swords, worn on just the one evening —

And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.

— [Luke 22.38], and that the sum total of wounds inflicted by those swords was the loss of one ear, which was quickly and miraculously replaced by the savior himself —

And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.

— [Luke 22:50-51]


Next up, here is Michel Mourre’s own, retrospective account, from his book In Spite of Blasphemy:

It would be absurd to expect that the incident I was organizing with my friends was going to bring about a change in the state of the Church. In the fever of excitement we were in at the time, some of my friends, particularly one who was a former monk, a Spanish Jesuit, really believed it would. But I knew only too well that I had no message to deliver, no reforms to attempt, since I as in a far more wretched moral condition than so many others. I did not believe that God could be found anywhere outside His Church or that God could be an ally of ours against the Catholic Church. In this connection there was the example of all the pseudo-saintly sinners, the pseudo-mystics, the pseudo-illuminaries, both Buddhist and otherwise, who flourished in Saint-Germain-des Pres, and the “hidden knowledge,” the “esoteric intuitions,” the “visions” of the diabolical procession in honor of Satan, the Devil-Lucifer, of which at least one initiate could be found any evening in a Saint-Germain bar ready to describe his “trances.” All these voluntary outcasts from the Church, all these madmen drunk on occult fumes and in search of a substitute God, a substitute Church and Mysteries, discouraged, by the very excess of their nonsense, any attempt to look for God outside the discipline and rules of the Church.

No, I had really no idea of changing anything in the Church! I was trying rather to convince myself that God no longer counted for me, nor did His Church, nor above all did the atmosphere of sacredness that could be felt in the ceremonies of the Church. By this insult to God, by this small sacrifice I was going to make, but not without anxiety or fear, I was trying to make God equal in my eyes with human, transient things which are destined to die and which can be trodden underfoot relentlessly and without regret.

And yet, once I was embarked on the details of our scheme for creating a disturbance during the Easter service at Notre Dame, I began to take it all quite seriously. To my feverish mind the cry of revolt which we decided on at a table in the Mabillon was like a message to the Church, to the world, and I found it quite natural to put on my monk’s habit again before mounting the pulpit. For me the habit of Saint Dominic was an exasperating symbol, an object of reproach. By profaning it I hoped to be rid of it.

Next day, after the Credo of the Easter High Mass in Notre Dame, dressed as a Dominican and wearing a tonsure, I mounted the pulpit and shouted out the old blasphemy: “God is dead!” But the blasphemy is no longer what it was in Nietzsche’s day, the prelude to a hymn of joy; it is only a cry of madness and horribly sad.


While the Moscow Cathedral and Notre Dame incidents are similar in some ways, the Notre Dame venue — Paris, 1950 — prefigures both the students at the barricades in 1968 and the Last Temptation troubles that I reported in connection with the Innocence of Muslims video — and Charlie Hebdo, too. The motivations, however, are quite dissimilar, as the quotes from the grrls closing statements, which I’ve excerpted here and which are extensively quoted in the Jager piece, suggest:

Maria Alyokhina, for example, asserted that for the Orthodox Church “[t]he Gospels are no longer understood as revelation, which they have been from the very beginning, but rather as a monolithic chunk that can be disassembled into quotations to be shoved in wherever necessary.” Noting that Jesus himself had been accused of blasphemy, Alyokhina goes on: “I think that religious truth should not be static, that it is essential to understand the instances and paths of spiritual development, the trials of a human being, his duplicity, his splintering. That for one’s self to form it is essential to experience these things.” And she makes the link to contemporary art explicit: “all of these processes—they acquire meaning in art and in philosophy. Including contemporary art. An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict.”


The radical power of that diagnosis becomes most clear in Yekaterina Samutsevich’s closing statement: “In our performance,” she writes, “we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.” Most striking here, perhaps, is the language of “uniting” orthodox and protest culture, rather than setting them against each other. This is done, Samutsevich suggests, in the name of a democratic ideal: both orthodox and protest culture are properties of the people rather than of one group or another. The performance, on this analysis, becomes a visual and aural demonstration of what Alyokhina had called “internal conflict,” something posed by all three women as the space in which religious revelation happens. Thus art, religion, and the state are not conceptually separated here but deliberately mixed up, in the name of religious truth.


It is worth noting that Michel Mourre, who had been a Dominican friar before the event in Notre Dame, came back into the Church and lived until 1977, writing a number of books including Religions et Philosophies d’Asie, Le Monde à la mort du Christ and L’Histoire vivante des moines, as well as his Dictionnaire d’histoire universelle.

As the world spins, so spins my head.

Of miraculous births and abominations

Friday, September 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — magical religion, the amnesia of the rationalists, a brief mention of poetry and a touch of Tillich ]

As you know, I’m interested in the clashing of worldviews. Yesterday, Teju Cole posted a tweet with a quick mention of apocalypse that caught my eye:

There’s a whole lot going on here, and it takes a neat combo of crabwise and linear thinking to get at it all.

But first, a brief and hopefully unnecessary note to our gentle readers:

Take a look at the tweet above, and if you don’t want to peer more deeply into the murky tabloid worlds of strange births, miracles and abominations that it touches on, don’t read the rest. This post may be gross enough in parts, or so absurd-sounding that you want to drop the whole thing and read something else.

As I see it, it’s also interesting and informative — fascinating even — besides being potentially quease-making. But seriously, if you’d rather skip that kind of thing, please don’t leave right away, just go to the very last section and read the two quotes from Paul Tillich. Thanks.


Still with me? Good…

For starters, we can compare these two stories, located about two weeks apart, and described as happening in two Nigerian states: Edo and Jigawa:

It would be easy to dismiss them both as Weekly World News style fabrications, like WWN’s Werewolf Sues Airline Over Flight Delay — but that would miss the point: they’re believed.


Restricting ourselves from the moment to half-goat, half-human combos, we can then compare a human birth narrative with a narrative of a goat birth:

The same story? A completely different event? Or human memory, playing its strange tricks?

Note that the two tales are now three years apart, and while one is reportedly from Nigeria, the other is from Zimbabwe.


In that last telling, we saw one local explanation for strange — dare I call them paranormal — events of this kind: a curse.

Let’s explore that idea a bit further. The same report quoted above went on to say:

A belief in ghosts is still alive and well in the region and the creature was taken as a sign of evil – perhaps even witchcraft. But local Governor Jason Machaya (56) is sure, that it was a half-man, half-goat hybrid which was the result of bestiality: “A grown man was responsible for this.”

So there’s another possibility. The next paragraph offers yet another:

Doctors, however say that it would be a biological impossibility.

Score one for the scientific worldview.


It may be a gossip and conspiracy mag invention, or an old wives’ tale, or the result of a curse, or witchcraft — which could include the local medical tradition — or, as with the horse birth, a miracle — what else?

It could be archetypal…

It could be Pan, the erotic satyr-god of Greek myth and James Stephens‘ delightful tale, The Crock of Gold, or the hideous demon of the occultist Eliphas Levi — the god of the old cult becoming a demon in the new, as they so often do —

— in this case also giving us the portmanteau word pandemonium


But there’s one final possibility, and it’s the one that Teju Cole presented us with the first nine of his 140 characters:

end times

I want to give that one time to settle in, because almost all end times predictions involve “signs of the times” that show the world going to hell in a hand-basket, with (eg) family values upended, the sacred profaned, lies usurping truth, and so forth.

I don’t believe this is by any means limited to Islam, but I’ll give an Islamic example as it comes to hand. One of the major signs of the coming of the Qiyama (Last Day, Day of Judgment, Day of Resurrection) is as follows:

After the night of three nights, the following morning the sun will rise in the west. People’s repentance will not be accepted after this incident.

Compare this, from the Christian New Testament, Matthew 24.29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.


Women in church giving birth to horses, goats or women giving birth to half-human, half-goats… The story crops up again in Turkey as reported on January 14th, 2010:

A sheep gave birth to a dead lamb with a human-like face. The lamb was born in a village not far from the city of Izmir, Turkey. Erhan Elibol, a vet, performed a caesarean on the animal to take the lamb out, but was horrified to see that the features of the lamb’s snout bore a striking resemblance to a human face. “I’ve seen mutations with cows and sheep before. I’ve seen a one-eyed calf, a two-headed calf, a five-legged calf. But when I saw this youngster I could not believe my eyes. His mother could not deliver him so I had to help the animal,” the 29-year-old veterinary said.

And again with the religious language — the picture accompanying the article carries the caption:

An Abomination of Nature or a Mutation Caused by Blind Industrialization?

Abomination, a word for the utterly unnatural, is another term found in connection with end times thinking. And industrialization? Perhaps that’s one version of the modernist end times…


A few things to note here in closing:

Indigenous religious beliefs and practices in many parts of the world include magical aspects that may seem shocking, absurd or distasteful to rational modern western sensibilities. Some of these beliefs and practices are deeply ingrained, and missionary churches have not infrequently carried some of them into their own structures, there being no clear dividing line between “culture” and “religion”. Churches which place an emphasis on miraculous healings as proofs of renewal in the Spirit are particularly prone to this kind of seepage.

The “rational modern western” sensibility I mentioned above, however, is so utterly out of touch with such matters that it treats them as jokes, lampoons them in the tabloids, and otherwise tends to ignore them.

Strongly held beliefs – what I referred to in Waco in Pakistan using Tillich’s term as “ultimate concerns” – are “facts on the ground” that we ignore at our peril.

Poetry — not flabby cherubic verses in greetings cards but the dedicated study of poetic tradition — contains an antidote.


Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns – cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.

and again:

It transcends both the drives of the nonrational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious

Both quotes are from chapter 1, What Faith Is, of Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith.

Recommended Reading & Viewing

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Top Billing! Michael Yon – America’s Dumbest War, Ever 

If we had a real media, they might ask President Obama and Governor Romney about this. Or our Secretaries of Defense and State. However it seems that the goal of the MSM is to not let nasty foreign news interrupt the scripted rhythm of the presidential campaign, even if, you know, an embassy gets sacked and burned and our ambassador murdered by a terrorist-led mob.

Yesterday a concerned father forwarded to me a letter from his son in Afghanistan. I confirmed authenticity, and republish with permission:


I am fed up. I cannot believe the lack of attention the recent changes in this war is receiving by the media or the country. I think I saw one thing on CNN about the following subject, but I had to dig extensively to find it. The purpose of this letter is to let you know of the garbage that our soldiers are going through right now. With this knowledge, I hope that you take action by writing your congressmen.

First, because of the recent green on blue incidents or “insider threats” as the new buzz phrase dictates, all coalition forces in Afghanistan have completely stopped partnering with the ANA, AUP, and ALP in order to prevent the death of anymore CF casualties by ANSF or Taliban disguised as them. This is also greatly spurred by President Karzi’s indifferent attitude and lack of action to take measures to prevent further insider attacks.

….To the second point: I don’t think that the American citizens would be happy if they knew that their soldiers were being prohibited from defending themselves in any way because of politically driven orders, but that is precisely what is happening in this war right now even as I write this letter. The soldiers of the U.S. never engage the enemy unless we know that we have will always have the tactical advantage in defending ourselves, that advantage is the use of close air support and air weapons team. To take those weapons away from us is to level the playing field for the enemy and thus exposing our soldiers to more danger. In the school house they teach us that the minimum ratio that we are to engage the enemy with, is a 3:1 ratio. In other words, we have the highest probability of winning because we don’t fight fair. The sound tactical principles behind this teaching have saved lives. The very presence of aircraft over our foot patrols has also saved lives and now our chain of command is being told by our political leadership that this is now not allowed.  If we are not partnering with the ANSF and we are not actively patrolling to prevent our enemies from massing their attacks on our COP and we can’t drop a bomb on the enemy that we have positively identified, than what the hell are we doing here? 

What indeed?

It seems the same physically safe DC political insiders who made the call for no security for our diplomats in Libya are now writing ROE that turns American soldiers and Marines into Taliban target practice.

Why? And more importantly…..Who?

Dr. Steve Metz– Strategic Horizons: The Future of Roboticized Warfare 

….Revolutionary military concepts like armored warfare and strategic bombing were created in the 1920s, a time of limited defense budgets, small militaries and a less frenetic operational pace that gave military theorists time to think and experiment. The United States appears to be entering a similar time, opening the door for revolutionary ideas. This may free military robots from their supporting role, as theoretical revolutionaries invent radically new ways to use them in innovative, robot-centric formations.

It’s not hard to imagine the advantages of robot-centric military formations, particularly for conflict on land. A roboticized Army or Marine unit could have as much or more capability than a current one, with significantly fewer humans. This would both lower the chances of U.S. casualties and save some of the massive costs represented by recruiting, training, educating, housing and feeding troops, as well as providing medical care and post-service benefits to members of the military. It also could ease a potential recruiting crisis as the annual cohorts of 18-year-olds get smaller.

Milpub (Seydlitz89) – Grand Strategy: Inherent Tensions 

Let’s start with a recap of Fuller’s concept of grand strategy. This is laid out in Fuller’s own detailed style in his The Reformation of Warfrom 1923. Fuller starts with a pyramid of military forces comprising land, sea and air forces which together constitute “a very complex and unstable organization”, in all force results from the integration of all three, so a political community could still extert force without air or naval forces, although this application of force would be of a more limited scope. The base of this pyramid rests on “the moral of the civil population and the commercial and industrial resources at their disposal”. Fuller likens this base to “fire” with the military forces being “earth”, the naval forces “water” and the air forces “air”. These four elements together produce a fifth which Fuller describes as the “national will to exist” and “the driving force of all military activities”. This “national will to exist” includes an ideological componentincluding the soldierly virtues present in society (“integrity, honour, justice and courage”). I would include with this something that Fuller assumes, that being best described as the German termOpferbereitschaft, or the willingness of the individual to sacrifice themselves in the interest of the political community. Fuller concludes, “This control and direction of the will to win and all the means whereby this will may be expressed I will call grand strategy.”Before getting to what Hew Strachan has to say, let me point out one more very important point – for Fuller, this grand strategy is contingent. The totality of moral and material elements exerts force which is then resisted by the enemy, who have in turn their own totality of elements that resist. It is the interaction of force and resistance which characterizes the war in question, making each war unique.

Steven Pressfield – Thinking in Blocks of Time 

….When we think in terms of blocks of time, it takes pressure off the need for immediate production. We don’t mind going slowly the first few days because we know we’ll hit our stride in a week or two.

Starting slow does something else that is not often appreciated. It sends a message. A low-pressure Day One tells the muscles, “Wake up, work is coming.” It doesn’t make the muscles panic. It just gets them in the mood. When we up the pace on Day Two, the muscles get the picture. They start to prepare.

Our imaginary colt does not dread running. He wants to gallop. The trick, for us the trainer, is not to give him his head too soon.

So we zoom out. We push the horizon back. We think in blocks of time.

Week One, we accomplish X.

Month One, we accomplish X+Y.

By New Year’s, we have nailed X, Y, and Z.

I recognize that what I do for a living—writing long-form pieces—is not analagous to what many people do. But the long-run mindset is a valuable one to master, even if you’re in the business of git-’er-done-now.

IVN – (John Sullivan) –Barbarization in Mexico Punctuated by Hyper Violence 

….As a result of the narco-violence refugees and internally displaced persons are also reported in contested areas with some estimates suggesting as many as 230,000 persons have fled the cartels’ ‘social cleansing.’ Journalists, police, and mayors are often targeted with assassination. In the case of journalists, the death toll ranges from 45-67 killed during the drug war; some estimates are higher. The goal of much of this violence is to remove opposition from rival gangsters and the state. Persons interfering with cartel operations are at risk. Again accurate numbers are hard to find.

….Barbarization and narcocultura go hand in handNarcocultura is a social phenomena that glorifies narcotrafficking. The narcos become heros worthy of emulation for the many “ninis” or youths without jobs or education. Think of it as Mexican gangsta rap on steroids. Two threads emerge: 1) the narco as hero; and 2) narco-folk saints like Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte to bond narcos into a cohesive social structure that provides justification for their actions and spiritual protection for their deeds. Narcomantas (banners), corpse-messaging (leaving a message on a corpse), narcomensajes (messages or communiqués), and narcopintas (graffiti) accompany acts of violence and brutality to extend the cartels’ message in a form of narco-information operations. Such imagery can be a powerful social bond.

SWJ – An Enduring Argument Against Counterinsurgency and Primitivization of War and Prospects for Peace

Abu Muqawama – (Elkus) Targeted Killings and Pakistan: Focus on the Policy and (Trombly) The Logic and Risks of Capture Operations 

Ribbonfarm –Money as Pain Relief 

Fast Transients – The pivot point 

Adaptive Leader –Learning the Hard Way Gets Easier 

LESC Blog – Latest P1 Column: The anatomy of victory (part two): Victory at minimal cost  

USNI Blog – Guest Post by Robert Kozloski: Future Wars: US Homeland at Risk? , Guest Post by RDML James Foggo: Fostering Innovation in the United States Navy and Guest Post by LCDR Rachael Gosnell: Can We Really Afford to Pivot?



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